When I was a little girl, my grandmother lived in Paradise, California, and based on the summer vacations my sister and I spent at her house, the name of the town was fitting. She taught us to knit and sew and make our own doughnuts. Beneath her sink was a box containing turpentine, brushes, and three dozen tiny bottles of enamel paint, and we spent afternoons making pictures of frogs and quail on the smooth rocks we brought home from Lake Shasta.
Life could not have devised a better grandmother. She owned a dog and was not interested in television. She let me fill up books of S&H Green Stamps and spend them any way I pleased. At night I stood on a stool in front of her kitchen sink and she rinsed my hair with lemon water.
Over the years, we have changed our roles: She drove me places, now I drive her places. We used to talk about the books we read, then she was reading the books I wrote, then her eyesight failed and I was reading books to her. For years I had lunch with her every day and we'd watch her soap opera, but then she couldn't remember who was who and the whole thing became an irritation to her. That was during the 16 years she lived with my mother. Her friends had died and her eight siblings had died and her husband had died and she was biding her time. When the process seemed to be going too slowly to suit her, she went on a hunger strike that was worthy of the IRA. When she got to 103 pounds, two years ago, we put her in assisted living. She was 92.
The world is divided like this: One day my mother goes to visit, the next day it's me. I take my grandmother to my house, bend her over the sink, and wash her hair. We have a routine. Once it was painting rocks and baking molasses cookies; later it was shopping, or just trips to the grocery store. Now it's grooming. I have become one of those little Egyptian birds that stands on the back of a crocodile, digging its beak in between the scales. I shampoo, condition, blow-dry, braid, and pin. I put her in the perfect light of my kitchen window and tweeze the invisible hairs from her chin, and then she runs her fingers across her chin to check me. "Missed one," she says, tapping. I file her fingernails and paint them if she's in the mood. I fill my blue Le Creuset soup pot with warm water and apple cider vinegar and soak her feet. Then I sit on my kitchen floor and do her toes.